Imagine having no agency over your reproductive decisions. Imagine that those around you believe that you are not capable of making decisions for yourself and your future. Now, imagine a society in which your body is policed to the point where institutions have the right to legally sterilize you without your consent. From 1928 to 1972, this was a reality for persons with disabilities or mental illnesses in Western Canada, predominantly practiced in Alberta. The Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta disproportionally affected vulnerable populations, including women, indigenous persons and institutionalized persons.
Nicola Fairbrother presented insights on the history of eugenics in Western Canada in the session entitled Surviving Eugenics in Alberta at Congress 2016. Fairbrother’s research focused on the story of eugenic survivors, as this problematic part of history remains largely unknown and rarely discussed. Given the traumatic nature of eugenics, this is an unsettling fact. In Alberta, 4,800 individuals were brought before authorities for proposed sterilization—and every single person was sterilized. In the majority of cases, people were told that they were undergoing appendix surgery; not knowing the truth about the procedure. Many of these individuals discovered that they were infertile only years later. Survivors of eugenics had to fight for opportunities to seek remedy and great efforts were made by the government to hide any settlements.
While four decades have passed since the end of eugenics in Canada, Fairbrother believes that the underlying discriminatory ways of thinking still exist today. Given continued ideals and expectations related to health and bodies, Fairbrother argues that eugenic thinking is still endemic in our culture and health system. She urges individuals and health professionals to look beyond traditional moral and medical models of social services, to embrace equity and democracy, and to respect populations that are oppressed in order to move forward and put to rest a legacy of eugenic thinking that has lived long past its expiration date.
Surviving Eugenics in Alberta was a session at Congress 2016, hosted by the Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE) and the Canadian Disability Studies Association (CDSA).